As Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate, lay dying in a heavily-guarded hospital last month, there was little mention of his fate in China.
For many younger Chinese, Liu is an unknown figure, the culmination of years of intense censorship of his life and works. The tiny minority who did attempt to express outrage online at Liu’s treatment, or commemorate him after he succumbed to liver cancer on July 14, saw their posts blocked and images deleted.
On Weibo, China’s most popular Twitter-like platform, users were prevented from posting messages with the words “Nobel,” “liver cancer,” “RIP” or the candle emoji, according to researchers at Toronto’s Citizen Lab and Hong Kong’s Weiboscope.
Censorship was also widespread on messaging app WeChat, which was once less filtered than Weibo because of its more private nature. Citizen Lab found that even in one-on-one chats, mentions of Liu Xiaobo’s name and photos of him were deleted when chatting with Chinese users.
Sina and Tencent, which own Weibo and WeChat respectively, did not respond to requests for comment.
“The party keeps tightening censorship to an absurd degree,” said dissident artist Badiucao, who has launched a campaign to memorialize Liu worldwide.
While Liu’s case is an outlier in terms of the intense efforts to wipe out all mention of the deceased activist, it is in keeping with trends in Chinese online censorship that have been building since Xi assumed power in 2012.
Building up the Firewall
Often discussion of Chinese internet censorship can be mocking and disbelieving, such as recent reports on attempts to wipe out mention of President Xi Jinping’s resemblance to Winnie the Pooh.
In the early days of the internet in China, outside commentators confidently opined that Beijing’s attempts at internet control were doomed. The New York Times’ Nick Kristof said in 2005 the Chinese authorities were “digging the Communist Party’s grave, by giving the Chinese people broadband.”
But the Chinese censors have defied their critics, building the world’s most sophisticated system of internet filtering and surveillance – the Great Firewall.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Industry and Information Technology did not respond to faxed requests for comment.
This month saw new bricks added to the wall, as Beijing went after two means of bypassing its controls.
Users of encrypted messaging service WhatsApp found themselves unable to send images or videos this week, and analysts reported the app’s speed was being filtered or disrupted, making it difficult to access from China.
Disruption of virtual private networks (VPNs) – which enable users to tunnel their web traffic through the Great Firewall, effectively browsing as if they’re in another country – has also been ramped up, with both Bloomb